Canada knocks off Finland to move on to semifinalsPosted: Thursday February 21, 2002 12:24 AM
Updated: Thursday February 21, 2002 3:23 AM
WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah (AP) -- Everything that has gone wrong for Canada in its 50-year search for an Olympic hockey gold medal suddenly seems to be going right.
Two of the sport's best scorers, Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman, scored goals and Canada played a conservative but consistent game to beat Finland 2-1 Wednesday night and advance to the Olympic semifinals.
After being blown out by Sweden 5-2 and barely beating Germany 3-2, Team Canada seemed to be in disarray, uncomfortable with adapting its more physical style to the big international ice. But the momentum turned when Joe Nieuwendyk scored late in the third period Monday to tie the Czech Republic 3-3, thus avoiding a win-or-be-gone quarterfinal against Russia.
"I don't think we were lacking emotion and passion, it just took some time to adjust after we rushed in here and practiced for only one day before we played," Yzerman said. "As each game goes, the intensity and the passion to win grows."
Now, rather than playing Sweden again, Canada gets a favorable semifinal matchup Friday with Belarus, a stunning 4-3 winner over Sweden earlier Wednesday. Canada's advance also sets up the possibility of an all-North America final against the United States, which meets Russia in the other semifinal.
"All the pressure's on us, but this is where we expected to be," defenseman Al MacInnis said.
Canada seemed determined not to overlook Finland, which has fewer star NHL forwards than any of the other so-called Olympic Big Six but often has shown it can play star-stopping defense in big international games -- as it did in upsetting Russia 3-1 Monday.
Finland beat Canada for the bronze medal in Nagano and was the only team to medal in each of the previous two Olympics, but even Finland star forward Teemu Selanne joked about the disparity in payrolls. Canada's roster is making about $120 million this season, while Finland's NHL players earn a fraction of that.
"But we knew we couldn't overlook them," Yzerman said. "You can't take anything for granted in the Olympics. This is the chance of a lifetime, and you've got to take advantage of it."
So, seemingly rely on a strategy that Finland couldn't win if it couldn't score, all that Canadian talent went into a play-it-safe mode after Sakic traded passes with Simon Gagne before slipping a backhander past goalie Jani Hurme -- an Ottawa Senators backup -- three minutes into the game.
Looks like all those millionaires wearing the Maple Leaf don't mind playing defense if it means an Olympic medal.
"We had a game plan and stuck with it: block shots, keep the puck moving and clear everything in front of the net," defenseman Ed Jovanovski said. "Everybody bought into the game plan and it worked."
Maybe too certain that a two-goal lead was enough, Canada relaxed momentarily, allowing Niklas Hagman to slip behind defenseman Rob Blake only 20 seconds later for an easy tap-in that goalie Martin Brodeur had no chance to play.
"That goal was a momentum killer," Yzerman said. "We were feeling good until that point."
Brodeur, making his third consecutive start in net, had little activity until late, but played an excellent third period -- he finished with 18 saves -- as Finland was forced to open up its deliberate offense.
"We didn't get too many chances until the third because they were playing such a strong defensive game," Jere Lehtinen said. "I thought we would score on one of those chances."
Selanne said, "We didn't play our best hockey; if we had played our best hockey, we would have had a chance."
Reaching the semifinals at least temporarily relieves some of the stress on executive director Wayne Gretzky, who has twice complained about a perceived anti-Canada theme among opposing fans and countries. Gretzky is under considerable pressure back home to deliver the long-awaited gold Canada hasn't won in its national sport since 1952.
"The players weren't panicking," Lemieux said. "From the start, we had a great dressing room. The controversy was back home, not in our dressing room."